Scrapping over Scarborough and Spratly

The US avoids wading in too deeply to the South China Sea maritime disputes

On Friday 8 June, Barack Obama welcomed Philippine president Benigno Aquino to the White House for talks on wide range of issues. There is much to link the two countries, which were one pretty much part of the same nation following the US annexation of the archipelago from 1898-1946. There are economic ties, linguistic ties and, importantly, military ties, (although they are a bit topsy-turvy). Manila often buys warships from Washington and the US Pacific patrols keep a watchful eye on what is going in the South China Sea region but in 1992 the Philippines booted the Americans out of their Subic Bay naval base.

Yesterday the US agreed to help out on another level: maritime surveillance. The Philippines are going to receive American aid to establish a National Coast Watch Centre, which seems, on the surface, an unassuming gesture between two oceanic friends. The Philippines certainly has a lot of coastline to guard as it is composed of more than 7,000 islands. There are also two collections of rocks, islets and reefs in the South China Sea that Manila would like some more assistance inspecting: Scarborough Shoal and the Spratly Islands.

And it is on this issue that the US support for setting up a National Coast Watch Centre takes on a new twist: China also covets the two archipelagoes. There are large oil and gas reserves underneath the coral and Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei are also making nationalist noises over ownership of the remote rocks. But Washington is wary of sticking its oar in too deeply into the choppy South China Sea waters. Beijing is adamant it is in the clear and has been deploying navy boats to ward off errant fishermen. Manila is seeking support for those very sea-goers, who believe they are trawling their own, Philippine waters. The Spratly Islands are in a triangle of proximity to the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei but are much nearer to Filipino land than anybody else. Despite this China bellows its claims and is far more than the regional power. It is a global player and the US is being very cautious with what help is openly offers to Manila.

The Philippines and China seem still to be at a stage where a resolution to the dispute could be reached peacefully but relations are deteriorating. Last week there were reports of another kidnapping by suspected Islamist extremists in the south of the Philippines. This time the abductors, who the military believe to have links to al-Qaeda, grabbed two Chinese iron ore traders. There was little reported evidence to suggest that the kidnappings had anything to do at all with the maritime disputes taking place far away in the seas to the west but it was another hurdle for Beijing and Manila to navigate.

There are half a dozen sovereign states battling for control of Scarborough Shoal and the Spratlys and Beijing is angling for bilateral meetings to debate the issues. The smaller countries on the shores of the South China Sea much prefer multilateral discussions. One player that is only dipping its feet in the water at the moment is the US, carefully offering low-level support and calling for urgent talks to avoid escalating the tension. But while the type of summits are sorted out, the contested fishing, naval patrolling and flag-waving will continue through the multiple claims to the multiple cayes, shoals, reefs and rocks in the region.

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